Tensions are building between the struggling U.S. offshore wind industry and the federal agency that oversees it.
Industry leaders worry that a new federal program designed to spark offshore wind construction could end up killing proposals that have been in the works for years, according to developers at the annual Offshore Wind Power USA conference this week in Boston.
The federal government has jurisdiction over much of the nation's offshore wind resources, but it only recently began developing regulations that would help the industry get off the ground. In the interim, states along the Atlantic Coast began soliciting wind proposals and developing programs to help jump-start development.
As concerns rise over plans to pipe Canadian tar sands oil to the East Coast for the first time, a dormant effort to clean up the region's fuels is showing new signs of life.
The Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) has accelerated a project to crunch the full "life cycle" carbon emissions of vehicle fuels used in the region—from their extraction through to their refining, transportation and combustion.
With the fuel tracker, NESCAUM hopes to advance a clearer picture of the transport sector's sizable—and growing—contribution to regional greenhouse gas emissions.
The new data, expected to be released later this year, could be the underpinning of a climate policy several years in the works called the Clean Fuels Standard.
When the nine states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system, agreed last week to dramatically limit power plant emissions, they ushered in a stricter phase of carbon regulation for the Northeast. But they also paved the way for a boom in clean energy investment for the region.
According to a recent analysis, the amount of money generated from the tougher scheme is projected to more than double by 2020, sending an additional $2.2 billion of RGGI money to state coffers—much of that to clean energy industries.
Since RGGI began over four years ago, the program has generated more than a billion dollars for the cash-strapped states that have participated. States are required to use at least 25 percent of their proceeds in efficiency and other programs that benefit consumers. But actually, 80 percent was spent on energy savings, renewable electricity and ratepayer assistance.
Now states are planning to cut the total amount of carbon dioxide that power plants can emit by 45 percent—a move expected to increase the price of emitting carbon by five-fold, boosting revenues.
Massachusetts, one of the RGGI states, is predicted to rake in an extra $350 million from the change during the next several years.
President Obama hasn't publicly drawn a connection between climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline, but new pressure is building on him and other officials to connect those dots.
Protests are springing up from Maine to Washington, D.C. to Oklahoma urging leaders to stop the Keystone XL and other oil sands import projects on climate change grounds. The Texas-bound Keystone XL is the biggest of many projects being proposed to connect Canada's oil sands to U.S. refineries and export ports. Protesters claim the pipelines would commit the United States and other countries to a form of heavy oil that would worsen global warming.
On Jan. 26, some 1,400 people marched through Portland, Maine, against possible plans to move oil from Canada's tar sands mines to local ports. Days earlier, hundreds of people joined solidarity rallies across New England and in Canada, where they picketed outside gas stations, locked arms along bridges and hoisted signs that read "Tar Sands = Game Over for Climate." On Monday, indigenous rights activists In Texas and Oklahoma filled public squares to show support for efforts by Canada's First Nations to block oil sands growth.
"We're trying to build the social movement" against expansion of tar sands oil extraction, said Sophie Robinson, who organized events last week through the Massachusetts chapter of 350.org, a grassroots organization that focuses on climate change.
Sen. John Kerry made it clear Thursday that he will play a pivotal role in deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline if he is confirmed as secretary of state.
“I’ll make the appropriate judgments about it,” he said, referring to the State Department’s ongoing review of the 1,200-mile tar sands oil pipeline. “There are specific standards that have to be met with respect to that review, and I’m going to review those standards and make sure they’re complete.”
For the past decade, the people of Boulder, Colo., have pursued an elusive goal: getting more clean energy into their grid. To do so, they pushed and prodded utility company Xcel Energy to give them a say in electricity decisions.
But nothing satisfied citizens and politicians, so several years ago they organized themselves into a movement for "municipalization," in which the city would split from Xcel and become its own utility. In April, the City Council is expected to vote in favor of pursuing the controversial idea, putting coal-heavy Boulder on the vanguard of efforts to break the monopoly of corporate utility companies.
"Somebody has to stick their neck out and try this," said Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum, who believes Boulder will inspire other cities. Already, residents in Minneapolis are preparing a ballot measure by November for municipalization, and advocates in Santa Fe, N.M., are not far behind.
Sweeping energy legislation seems out of the question for Congress in 2013, but lawmakers are planning to advance smaller federal laws that could go a long way to expanding America's clean economy.
The proposal most likely to pass is a tax-code tweak that would let clean energy developers use master limited partnerships (MLPs), a type of company structure that Congress established in the 1980s.
Coal, oil and gas companies have used MLPs—which are worth about $300 billion today—to raise capital for oil pipelines, refineries and other energy projects. The financing mechanism is credited with sustaining the current shale drilling boom.
But the current tax code bans master limited partnerships from investing in "inexhaustible" natural resources like solar and wind.
Two identical bills in the U.S. House and Senate were proposed last year to extend MLPs to renewables but were never taken up. A groundswell of bipartisan support is building for the measure, experts say. Lawmakers are expected to reintroduce the bills in the coming months, which are likely to pass in 2013.
Solyndra was the never-ending story of the year.
The bankruptcy of a solar company that got a half a billion dollars in taxpayer money provided election-year fodder for Republicans, who used it to bash Pres. Obama's clean energy programs. Fossil fuel interests spent tens of millions of dollars trying to make Solyndra a political liability—to no avail, in the end.
It wasn't just about Solyndra. In 2012, it seemed every major clean energy policy became a target of prominent conservative groups.
Activists who had hoped to block the southern leg of the Keystone XL in Texas by occupying trees in the pipeline's path are ending their three-month protest after construction was rerouted around them.
TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, acquired an easement in October to build the pipeline slightly west of the tree blockade and the original route. Construction is now nearly finished on the property, and the protesters will soon call it quits.
"It's a sad time at the tree blockade," said Ron Seifert, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, the activist group behind the campaign. Seifert said it's probably days before the tree village decamps, though no official decision has been made. "We'll take it day by day."
Since late September, dozens of people have been living in 80-foot tree houses or camping below on a piece of property the size of one and a half football fields in Winnsboro, East Texas.
The blockade and related protests across Texas have resulted in 50-some arrests and several legal disputes since construction began on the Keystone XL, designed to carry oil from Cushing, Okla. to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The pipeline would eventually transport heavy diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from the oil sands of Canada.
Roughly one-quarter of the 485-mile pipeline is installed, TransCanada spokesperson David Dodson told InsideClimate News.
In Georgia, a tiny consultancy aims to break the conventional mold of electricity generation and become the nation's first all-solar utility.
In Colorado, a young startup seeks to do something similar with geothermal. And in California, a small firm wants to stoke a boom in distributed solar rooftop arrays that would cut dependence on polluting, faraway power plants and lessen impacts when severe storms like Hurricane Sandy knock out critical infrastructure.
This trio of upstarts is part of a small band of renewable companies attempting a daunting task—innovating their way into a century-old energy market dominated by big utilities and fossil fuels.
It's the "very first pitch of the first inning," said Jason Brown, CEO of Gen110, the California firm seeking to make distributed solar generation more mainstream.
In Germany, the world's clean energy leader, it took a federal law passed in 2000 to pave the way for the transformation of its power sector. The law decentralized power production and gave small producers incentives to compete with utilities.